In Calcutta, life is marked by the intense stress of always working by the clock; there are the endless literary wrangles, interminable assaults of sundry social obligations on the nerves, the vulgarities of one’s livelihood, and ultimately frustration at failing to control one’s own life. After that, it was heart-warming to be in Santiniketan. I felt I had been set free, that I had regained the gift of life. Away from petty bickering and agitating, away from heartburn.
My mind was alert and active, not reeling under the bloodsucking oppression of the workplace. The sky the wind the birdsong delighted the senses, the heart filled with melody, yet my intellect did not sag, my brain remained animated. We had privacy, plus excellent company a stone’s throw away. Santiniketan had the detachment of a city, but not its heartlessness. It had not the cunning or the pettiness of village life, but its simplicity. Santiniketan is not a village, nor a city, it is not even Bengal; but neither is it a strange wondrous tapobhumi in some far-flung corner, not a hermitage devoted to an ascetic pursuit of wisdom. In some sense, it is the true cultural centre of India. All that is valuable in Indian culture finds place here, mingled with the freshness and liveliness of Europe. Here, India is not a huge unmoving behemoth embodying an ideal; she is alive. This is not the deputy-munsif-policeman-Raibahadur infested land that British-ruled India is; it is our very own, a home for our body and soul. Nothing here dazzles the eye or challenges the intellect; rather the very first glance evokes familiarity, a sense of belonging. This is a rare experience, for in our cities, life is pallid and twisted by the false diktats of Englishness; nor are our villages pleasing --- for while the village appeals, the country bumpkin does not. Some day we might have had our own skill of crafting life, but we have lost that, we have forgotten – now we fill our houses with furniture, cheer at football matches, go to films, butter up the rich, and amble through life lackadaisically. In Santiniketan, one sees the actual practise of the art of life, and even with our numbed minds, we recognise that art as our own. The answer to many questions-- how one should live and with what—is to be found here, at least partially, and is easily discernible to those hearts that sing the same tune.
When we got to Santiniketan, one simple fact hit us. Amazed, we recognised we were Indians. In our day-to-day life, this fact remains merely incidental. Europeans exhibit distinct European characteristics, is there a distinctive Indian character? Here we looked Indianness in the face, and we liked what we saw. It is difficult to pinpoint what in our daily life in Calcutta detracts from this character; our attire our homes our manners are all so insipid and nondescript. Dynamic nations live to a beat that is their own, we are at present deadened, our lives out of tune, out of beat. The farmer’s wife cleans her hut and puts two vermillion spots on the door; a simple ritual but it belongs to her and bespeaks her Indianness. On the other hand, the urban rich dress up their walls with indifferent oils done in foreign fashion, proclaiming loudly an intellectual bankruptcy. And yet, vermillion dots have no place in the educated urban sensibility, nor do they go with modern homes and furnishings; in pursuit of a suitable replacement we cram our houses with useless stuff--- pointless, uninspiring. You see this hollowness in every aspect of middle-class life. Aping the British, we go to clubs that soon deteriorate into dens of card-playing or back-biting; we want a free-mixing of the genders that we are incapable of ---soon enough the men and women form disparate groups and the conversation never breaches the divide. Sometimes pretending to be an English gallant, we take Miss So and So by the hand and accompany her to the table, and give Mrs So and So a measured smile. Our life is full of fakes; something that saddens some of us. In Santiniketan, one has inkling that escape is possible. Here, family and social life have a refined cadence that is ours, that is truly Indian.
Santiniketan is not nationalistic in the narrow sense though. In the air, there is openness, a sense of global belonging. Here, the whole world comes together. It is remarkable how Santiniketan takes to its heart its foreign visitors. It makes them at home, without putting them into a melting pot. It is an old adage that while in Paris, every writer writes beautifully in his own tongue; likewise Santiniketan emphasizes cultural characteristics, even as it draws people together. Because we look inside us and recognise ourselves, nobody seems strange. All men are bound together by the common bond of humanity--- elsewhere this is only in theory, here it is an obvious and practised fact. People are not suspicious or condescending; they look upon neighbours as friends. A person’s character counts, and not his qualifications or financial means; nothing can be more important than the man himself. Normally, people at the top do not acknowledge as their equals those lower down in the social hierarchy, for such are the rules of a commerce-driven world; here not even the household help are denied their human dignity. Like others, the servants work hard, but they are not driven; I noticed they were not ordered around. All the women do some light housework. I mention this because these days, in affluent households, women hardly lift a finger; even the paan is made up by the servants. Not that they spend their time on better things; their days are spent lounging, yawning and poring over novels. This is unjust and unhealthy. If you went by the rule that he who works will eat, then what would they do--- these wives of well-paid officers who spend their days napping, buying jewellery, chatting up neighbours and watching movies? Think about it, what life is this? When on a summer afternoon I look around and see the shuttered windows, and remember that behind them our womenfolk sleep, I think of the dreadful waste and feel saddened. All sins deserve forgiveness, barring idleness. But then again, the trend today is to wrest out of workers colossal amounts of work; this attitude poisons daily life and debilitates the spirit. Work willingly done is pleasure, forced labour back-breaking. Today, people earn their livelihood through work that is far from enjoyable, accompanied as it is by so much extortion and exhortation; ultimately they find that work they live by are killing them. A woman is somewhat at an advantage in this respect, for her workplace is also her home, she is at the helm; to cede control over it to hired help is meaningless sacrifice.
In Santinketan, work is what it should be, a piece of the fabric of life. Work here is as pleasure-filled as play, executed with the sincerity of a promise. There is respectful compliance, but no fierce coercion. No one is idle, but no one is smothered with work. Life is simple and filled with ease; no one bothers even to dress up, no one hesitates to leave the house in everyday clothes. Not having to freshen up before going out is a happy relief. In Santiniketan, celebratory occasions do not call for prescribed social codes. If you want to get to know someone, you just go ahead—you don’t wait around till you are introduced. People are self-respecting, and a fellow-feeling makes any social intercourse pleasant and easy. The spirit flourishes here; everyone-- the wise man the worker the student-- is enriched by the inherent spirit of humanity; Calcutta’s starched flawless correct decorum pales beside it.
This, one must grant, that Santiniketan has fashioned some kind of equality and put that into practice. Everyone dresses simply. It sounds inoccuous; and would even have been unacceptable, had it been a mere pose. When the city-bred rich go in rags, they cannot forget it, and we stand by and murmur, “Look at that, so much money, and yet how simple.” This adulation makes up for the discomfort of poor clothes. On the other hand, when the poor man is forced to wear tattered clothes, he remains cognisant of the fact; he feels always the contemptuous glances of the people around, he would rather fade away, he would rather not speak. Here, in this environment, one ignores who is rich and who is not, and clothes are not taken note of. Nor is the inhuman ideal of renouncement in vogue, rather a quest for beauty is encouraged. The articles of daily use should please the eye, but beauty should not be determined by price; it should be created by the muse within, should speak of simple tastes and artistic sensibility. That cannot be bought but must be created.
Here, human traits are important, and so the external differences lose prominence. Because most people have refined tastes, it is difficult to feel any great discord in any company. They all have a natural regard for the pursuit of culture, they respect art for its own sake. For the litterateur, the artist, or for that matter anyone who lives by his intellect, Santiniketan is an asylum. In the middle of a desert of stupidity and tastelessness, this is a green verdant music-filled forest. I can unhesitatingly say that we authors live an irritating and humiliating life. Our society gives us very little reason to feel that literature or any creative profession is worthwhile. We are treated as if it were nothing but an idle hobby; no word or act ever ascribes any real purpose to it. In the real world, it is hard to imagine that even a modicum of respect would come the author’s way; on the contrary, he is perceived as a foolish useless person. If I am ever introduced as an author, I am most often received with an infinite blankness, leaving me feeling not a little bit guilty. But worse than this dumb indifference, is the indulgent smile, “Oh, a writer, are you! Not that I can keep track of books and things, as busy as I am with so much, but yes, yes, indeed, I have seen some of your stuff.” It takes a lot to keep my temper at these words, but I have to, for such are the unwarranted demands of genteel society. Sometimes, a worthy citizen, a little rich banker or film-maker or an omniscient much-lauded professor, gets slightly rankled—covertly convinced that we were his betters, he heaps insults on us at the slightest pretext, even in the guise of helpfulness. To put it concisely, to survive in this middle-class setting, a poet or an artist has to learn to cohabit with overt or covert antagonism. I am making no bones about it, and I hope I offend no one. To be truthful, how many people in this sprawling city of Calcutta, are really capable of appreciating art or culture? Here, highly paid executives earn more respect than the talented, the uncultured businessmen and fat landlords even more. A man is measured by his money, even among the elite ‘cultured’ echelons of society. We are therefore obliged to seek out and confine ourselves to a small group of like-minded people. This may be unhealthy, but it is also the only way to survive. Like seeks like, that is human nature; a conducive environment is necessary for survival. We too create, as best we can, a coterie around ourselves; we do have our quarrels, but there is a basic acceptance of the relevance of art and creativity. We do this in natural self-defence, for without this minimal support we may cease to be. When we venture outside this sphere, we don rigid armours, for outside there is an unbearable barrenness. But no armour is strong enough for one to return home unhurt. We have delicate sensibilities and we hurt that much more.
Like chancing upon a land of plenty while famines rage everywhere--- when we find that it is indeed possible to lead a fully creative life, we are enchanted. Which is why visiting Jamini Ray in Calcutta is such a pleasure. The walls of his room are covered with paintings, and there the mind finds in full bloom what it has always yearned for. The world is infested with intense bitter fighting, ---but in there is peace, liberation. To sit in that room and breathe in the rarefied air is fulfilment; there art is supreme, the encompassing walls silently declare that an artist can epitomise success. This brings self-respect, I learn to trust my own worth, that which is trampled underfoot everywhere, every moment. It is this bracing air that we seek everywhere, and are elated when we find. In Santiniketan, I witnessed a joyous mingling of art and life. Here art is not luxury, no formal costume to be donned on select occasions; here life is art and art life. To this, nature adds its own music day and night season to season, life here is rich, nothing is wanting. Talent automatically finds respect. Knowledge holds its head high and basks in its own worth; for art and creativity all doors open of their accord; here anyone engaged in any intellectual activity will naturally find happiness. The writer, who is humiliated everywhere else, will find appreciation; in this one place at least a person is prized for being a writer alone.
I can speak for myself. In my daily mundane existence, I do not find worth mentioning the small fact of being a writer, I feel embarrassed when someone does. Only a few friends know that I write. The writing may or may not merit adulation, but I can loudly proclaim my love for literature; my work might be wanting in worth, but I myself lack neither will nor enthusiasm. In my personal life, my authorship is known to very few; for I have realised that the larger world places little value on it. But in Santiniketan I found that this one fact is important to everyone. This should not be surprising in the capital of Rabindra-country, but I feel no shame in acknowledging that it felt good. To realise, in such a short time and within so small a confine, that the work I do is not entirely useless and insignificant, is no mean achievement. Creativity here is in the air; and it inspired my whole being. I did not read newspapers; I lived in ignorance of the state of the Calcutta football season or the war in Europe. I must say I found this change of weather rather salubrious.
Illustration: Amrakunja (Mango grove), by Nandalal Basu; taken from Sudhiranjan Das's Amader Shantiniketan.
Published May, 2008
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